In the Loop

The Network's Lost Millions…TV News Takes a Hit…Spiking Iowa

What the Debates Cost the Networks

Democracy is expensive. Just ask the networks. Whoever won the first presidential debate, the big losers were the Big Four, to the tune of $61.4 million. Last week's Bush-Kerry exchange aired Thursday night from 9 to 11 p.m., an ad-revenue jackpot. According to Brad Adgate of Horizon Media, that's when networks collect 30%-40% of all prime time revenue.

Industry estimates suggest that by forgoing The Apprentice and ER, NBC probably gave away $32.5 million. CBS's CSI and Without a Trace could have netted $20.1 million. And ABC's Life As We Know
and Primetime Thursday might have landed $5.2 million. Fox sacrificed $3.6 million for Tru Calling. (These figures were generated using ad rates and average number of spots aired per hour.) To offset its losses, NBC bumped up Thursday star The Apprentice to Wednesday at 9 p.m. CBS aired a repeat of CSI in the same timeslot.

That giant sucking sound you just heard was the cost of civic duty.

Field of Screams

When William Shatner and Spike TV set out to spoof a small town, they didn't count on the sharp residents of Riverside, Iowa. The crew traveled there in September to shoot sci-fi flick Invasion Iowa. In fact, it was a setup for an eight-episode reality show about the reaction of middle America to an over-the-top lampoon of Hollywood.

Linda Lemke, a 23-year-old pharmacy technician who played Shatner's love interest, was suspicious from day one. "We all had a weird feeling. I was looking from the legal standpoint because we received no contract." And then there were the little details. Cue-card holder and Riverside homemaker Diana Schultz noted costume oddities. "Not quite what I would think of as Mr. Shatner's sci-fi style," she says, citing "tinfoil on his shoes."

The prank was revealed at a dinner for the cast and crew, at which Riverside was relieved to discover it would be the focus of a reality TV show rather than the butt of a bad movie. And just to ensure there were no hard feelings, cast and crew donated $100,000 to the town. The show's rep wouldn't confirm the launch date, but according to one local, the eight-hour Spike series is slated for a winter 2005 airing.

Barton Bullies TV News

Broadcast news has sunk to an "instantaneous gratification, reality-TV scenario," complains Rep. Joe Barton, who oversees the broadcast industry as chairman of the House Commerce Committee. He's so angry he's threatening to hold hearings on Dan Rather's National Guard document fiasco. "It's going to be fair and balanced," says the Texas Republican.

The first subject in his sights: 60 Minutes, although he suspects the same shortcomings exist at other networks. For openers, he wonders why CBS let Rather serves as his own managing editor and worries that there's "no safety valve" to prevent Rather from putting his opinions into news stories.

"If somebody wants to broadcast to every American an opinion, you have the right to do that. Rush Limbaugh does that every day. But if you're going to proclaim it is the news … then there needs to be real safeguards." Perhaps, Barton suggests, too many TV reporters didn't get their start in newspapers—or, as he puts it, "real journalism." Print editing, he surmises, is more thorough.

What happens if lawmakers think it's time for a cleanup? Barton insists Congress won't pass any media restrictions, but does offer the ominous image of Russia, where station owners who anger the government hire "armed guards or pay a big bribe" to stay on the air.